Explainers

Why Building an “Architecture of Listening” Improves Employee Engagement

Listening is how employees evaluate their leaders— “Do you value my concerns? Are you open to changing how we work?”

“Discretionary effort” is the fancy term for going above and beyond as an employee. Putting more energy and passion into your role than is required by your job description or perhaps even recognized by your pay.

Discretionary effort is why businesses obsess over employee engagement. The theory goes that an engaged employee is more likely to expend discretionary effort—and therefore, is more profitable. Hence why so many tools exist to measure changes in engagement, to identify the disengaged, and to coach leaders on how to boost engagement on their teams.

And when platforms like Gallup or Culture Amp measure engagement, they’re trying to assess an employee’s emotional commitment to their employer. An engaged employee is considered passionate and devoted, likely to go the extra mile and to stay with the company longer.

In the past, organizations have focused on critical drivers like learning and development, career progression, management training, vision and values, transparency, perks, and other benefits in order to boost engagement.

In this moment, one that has scrubbed clean the novelty and impact of words like, “uncertain” and “unprecedented,” perhaps it’s time to do something more.

In a relationship, a good indicator of whether one person is committed is the level of commitment the other person demonstrates. Right now, instead of obsessing over how much our employees are committed to us, perhaps it’s time to prove how much we’re committed to them. Not just our commitment to supplying what’s needed to fulfill their role or advance their career, but a deeper commitment that goes above and beyond the job. 

When employees demand that their employers respond more actively to the threat of a global pandemic, or racial injustice, or sex or gender discrimination, or climate change, or any other of the existential threats at our door, they are demanding that their employers demonstrate a commitment to them. A commitment that begins by listening.

In 2015, Professor Jim Macnamara, Ph.D. at the University of Technology Sydney, published a report on building an “architecture of listening” and found eight key elements required:

  1. A culture of listening. An organizational culture that is open and inclined to listening to the needs of employees, stakeholders, and even “stakeseekers” – groups who seek representation in the organization’s decision-making.
  2. Policies for listening. Beyond broad philosophical statements, Macnamara insists this must include specific rules and guidelines distributed among relevant departments, units, and individuals on who is to be listened to, and how that listening should be conducted.
  3. Addressing the politics of listening. Macnamara states, “Not listening to someone is itself an overtly political act.” Organizations must self-reflect and recognize any biases they have against groups they’re not listening to.
  4. Structures and processes for listening. Organizations must determine how listening is delegated (even including it in job descriptions) and construct processes to ensure those voices are treated fairly and reasonably.
  5. Technologies for listening. Here, Macnamara admits that while there are many new tools to capture voices, he cautions that “Only humans can apply empathy, social considerations, ethical reflections, and humans make decisions about whether to accept or reject, act on or ignore, what others say. Humans determine whether voice matters.“
  6. Resources for listening. Organizations must prioritize time, money, and other assets for listening, which might require deprioritizing and defunding other activities.
  7. Skills for listening. Organizations must also train and develop their people (including their CEO) to listen effectively and equitably.
  8. Articulation of listening to decision-making and policy making. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an organization must have policies and structures in place to take appropriate action based on what it hears that it finds worth merit.

Employees don’t have a survey they can send to their leaders to measure their commitment to them, so listening is their evaluation mechanism: Can you hear me? Are you valuing my voice and my concerns? Will you be open to exploring ways to make things better together? 

Listening is the “discretionary effort” employees need to see first and foremost right now (followed of course by appropriate action) to feel valued and yes, engaged at work.

One last and very critical note: Throughout his report, Dr. Macnamara stresses the importance of senior leadership (especially the CEO) embracing listening within the organization. He points out that executives are often the most insulated from certain voices and/or most prone to develop a bunker-mentality that labels certain voices as “complainers” or too uninformed to be worth hearing. If you’re in an executive position, now’s the time to deeply self-reflect and examine whose voices you hear and whose you do not or cannot.

Published June 26, 2020

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